Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: An Application of Reflective Human
J. Bailey, Ph.D., CFLE
Associate Professor & Extension Specialist, Department of Health &
Human Development, Montana State University
and consumer sciences professionals are in a position to provide leadership in
addressing family issues in their states. This article discusses how a
statewide program is being built to assist grandparents raising grandchildren
using reflective human action theory as a framework.
diversity is often equated with racial, ethnic, or religious diversity.
However, there have been an increasing number of structurally diverse families
in the past 30 years. Although families have always been diverse (Coontz, 1992)
structural diversity is more prevalent today. One such family structure is that
of grandparents raising grandchildren.
involvement in raising grandchildren is not new however a grandparent serving
as primary caregiver to his or her grandchildren has dramatically increased in
the past 10 years throughout the United States (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler, &
Driver, 1997). Western rural states in particular are experiencing a dramatic
increase in the numbers of grandparent headed households. Of the states that have
shown an increase in grandchildren in grandparent headed households, 14 of the
top 20 are in the west (U. S. Census, 2000). These grandparent headed
households include working professionals, retirees, and those working minimal
wage jobs and range in age from 30s to 80s. Some are great grandparents raising
I became aware of the prevalence of the grandparents raising
grandchildren in rural areas when I started my position as an Extension
Specialist in a western state. My first few months on the job were spent
traveling the state meeting with Extension Agents and other constituents,
asking for their thoughts on the pressing needs for families in their counties.
Repeatedly I heard that grandparents raising grandchildren needed information,
resources, and support. These families were not exclusive to our American
Indian Reservations where grandparents raising grandchildren is a cultural
norm, but rather throughout the state in both our urban and rural settings.
Based on this information, I began exploring more about this fast growing
family structure and sought to bring people together to address the need. From
this, the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Project in our state was born.
What is known about Grandparents Raising Grandchildren?
There are many reasons why grandparents are called upon to
care for their grandchildren—children being removed from the parents due to
child abuse or neglect, parental chemical dependency issues, chronic illness,
parental immaturity, teen pregnancy, abandonment, death of a parent,
difficulties with finances, military deployment, divorce, unemployment, and
incarceration of parents (Weber & Waldrop, 2000). Often it is a combination
of factors that lead to children living with their grandparents. In almost all
cases this family structure is created due to a crisis or loss.
Grandparents are stepping in to provide care, however for most
it comes with an emotional, psychological, and financial cost. Grandparents
often experience physical and emotional health concerns, financial issues of
raising another child, legal concerns, and strained family relations.
Grandparents may have to navigate a variety of systems in order to enroll the
child in day care or school, apply for medical insurance, obtain financial assistance
by means of food stamps and welfare, and obtain custody or guardianship of the
child. The requirements to attain some of these services can be restrictive and
In addition to the complex systems grandparents may have to
navigate, they are often faced with providing for the child on a fixed income.
The average income for grandparent headed households with children present is
less than $20,000 (AARP, 2003). More than 38% of grandparents who are primary
caregivers to their grandchildren are below the poverty line (Kirby &
Kaneda, 2002). When a child is added to the household, the family often is
thrust below the poverty line, and the grandparents are forced to find a way to
meet the needs of their new family, which often means returning to work or
applying for aid.
Some literature suggests that difficulties controlling
grandchildren’s behavior, coping with generational differences in values and
parenting styles, and assuming firm parental control can lead to psychological
distress in grandparent caregivers (Sands & Goldberg-Glen, 2000).
Grandparents may feel out of touch with changes in parenting practices and
discipline techniques, the educational system, and even pop culture as it
relates to how children behave and interact socially. Other research indicates
that many grandparents feel socially isolated from their peers, which in a
rural setting can be compounded by low opportunity to participate in social
networks, poor physical health, and transportation problems (Kelley, Whitley,
Sipe, & Yorker, 2000; Revicki & Mitchell, 1990). Grandparents raising
grandchildren may be able to prevent or manage stress with the support of
community resources, but research indicates that there are inadequacies in
public programs designed to meet the needs of these families (Sands &
Goldberg-Glen, 2000). The increase in this family structure and the paucity of
services available is an issue that can be addressed through the leadership of
family and consumer science professionals.
Meeting the Needs of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
In my role as an Extension Specialist, I conduct applied
research as well as develop and deliver programming. When it became apparent
that there was a dearth of resources and programming for grandparents raising
grandchildren, I sought to fill the void. Budget limitations and vast distances
between communities in our state require successful statewide programs to be
collaborative in nature. Additionally, as a professional in family studies, I
frame my work from an ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Using this
perspective I sought out others who might have contact with these families,
specifically AARP, our state office on aging, early childhood professionals,
and county agents. What has developed is an informal partnership among
state-level agencies and organizations committed to providing support to
grandparents raising grandchildren. The model lends itself to reflective human
action theory (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm & Vaughn, 1995) in that it is
professionals in the field of family and consumer sciences who can be part of
social change. Andrews, et al., propose a new way to view leadership citing the
core principles of the theory as sharing information, developing relationships,
accepting chaos, and embracing vision. All of these principles are evident in
the grandparents raising grandchildren project.
Reflective Human Action Theory in Action
Sharing information became the focus of the first statewide
partners’ meeting. Representatives from the various state-level agencies and
organizations came together in June of 2002 to share information about
resources they had or could make available for grandparents raising
grandchildren. We found that the more that was shared, the more the synergy
built to create a project that would benefit an underserved and
underrepresented family type in our state.
Others working on the issue of grandparents raising
grandchildren found that support groups were of benefit. This became the first
major focus of the project. Through support groups grandparents can share their
stories, find support from others, get updated on child development and
parenting, and learn about available resources.
In order to set up support groups we developed a
day-and-a-half training for support group facilitators covering such topics as
group logistics, child development, understanding grief and loss, legal issues,
and issues related to working with state social service agencies. The training
was designed for professionals who would be leading the support groups; however
we were surprised when we had more grandparents raising grandchildren sign up
for the training than agency or organization staff. We had been advised that
grandparents raising grandchildren repeatedly reported being very tired due to
taking on their additional roles. Due to the reported fatigue we were advised
to have an agency or organization sponsor the support group rather than the
grandparents. Having an agency or organization sponsor the groups also would
help to institutionalize the project. What we found was a wonderful blend of
agency staff and grandparents who wanted to take on the leadership to start
support groups in their communities. At the local level, leadership and
partnering blossomed as grandparents sought out agencies that could assist them
in advertising the support groups, finding a location to hold the groups, and
facilitating other logistical needs. Some of the groups are held in agency
meeting rooms, churches, and in grandparents’ homes. Each group is unique in
who is facilitating the group and who the facilitators are partnering with to
offer the support. The variation in groups represents the different services
and agencies available in a given community. For example, while an Extension
agent covers an entire county he or she may not be available in a particular
community. There may however be a child-care resource and referral office in
the community that has taken on local ownership of the project. To date we have
trained 77 support group facilitators and have 11 groups operating across the
The second principle of reflective human action
theory—developing relationships—became important at our first partners’
meeting. Strong relationships among the major partners have developed and continue
to grow. Additional partners are being brought into the project as we reach out
to other agencies and organizations, as others hear about what we are doing,
and as we discover the resources of other groups. Our state office of public
instruction is now involved and the project is listed on its website for
parents. Staffs from the state office of public instruction and the office on
aging are presenting a seminar for grandparents on working with the schools and
advocating for children with special needs. These relationships have enhanced
the visibility of the project, allowed us to collaborate with others, and
provided a statewide network to offer the program.
Several of the Native American tribes in our state have been
interested in the project. We have found that although grandparents raising
grandchildren is traditional and culturally expected, in many cases the
grandparents are finding themselves in this situation due to the aforementioned
reasons: substance abuse, death, disability, deployment, and/or economics. We
are finding that these issues for grandparents cut across cultures. We are
continuing to work with the reservations to adapt materials and information
that are culturally appropriate for the Native Americans in our state.
Through all of this there has been a certain level of chaos as
we tried to determine where to begin and how to implement the project with
minimal resources, but perhaps the chaos has also led to creativity. We found
that many grandparents did not know where to go for services, which led us to
start by identifying services available in the state. The grandparents in
general had limited incomes; therefore we offered the training in various parts
of the state and offered scholarships to grandparents so that they could
attend. Navigating the legal system has proved daunting, and knowing related
laws on each of the seven Indian reservations in the state has proved to be a
great challenge. We are still seeking resources in this area. The emotional
aspect of dealing with grandchildren with special needs and the guilt
associated with the failures of the adult children has become apparent.
Although we are still sorting out the needs, the informal nature of the
training and building of friendships during training and in the support groups
appears to be very helpful for the grandparents.
Through the chaos we have started three other aspects of the
project. We have a listserv for grandparents and those working with the
families to share information and issues with one another. A bimonthly
newsletter specifically for the grandparents in our state has been developed
and disseminated to over 200 individuals. And a website has been devoted to the
issue. All three of these projects are maintained through the Extension office
at our university and are used to distribute information across the state.
We are still in a certain state of chaos as we work to define
short- and long-term goals for the project. For this coming year we have been
working on increasing the number of support groups and developing a statewide
pamphlet of services for grandparents raising grandchildren.
Although we are gaining clarity on the issues, there is still
much more that needs to be done. The vision of providing support to these
families is starting to become a reality however this project is dynamic in
nature and will continue to change and grow. Ideally, enough local leadership
would develop that would eventually lessen the need for state-level leadership
to keep the project operating in the communities. To date this has not
occurred. It is our regular contacts with the support group facilitators and
the distribution of information over the listserv and in the bi-monthly
newsletters that seem to keep the program on track. Perhaps we could eventually
offer leadership training to those in the communities so that they might feel
more empowered to develop stronger community programs.
The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Project would not have
been able to get started without the vision and support of the statewide
partners and the commitment of a handful of grandparents interested in this
issue. With this support we applied for and received a small seed grant from
the Brookdale Foundation of New York to start support groups across the state.
This organization, in a sense also operates from a reflective human action
perspective by offering seed grants that encourage people to join together,
share resources, and create a vision for impacting the lives of grandparents
who are raising grandchildren. Because of the synergy and framework we have
been able to create, a second grant from our state Children’s Trust Fund has
helped us to expand our efforts to two other areas of the state.
Extension is interested in documenting the impact of programs
offered. We sought to assess whether or not the project was making a difference
in the lives of grandparents in our state. Through a research grant from Kappa
Omicron Nu we have been able to survey and interview grandparents across the state
to determine what is working, where the program could be improved, and how
parenting a second time around was impacting grandparents. Data are in the
process of being analyzed. Initial information indicates that grandparents
value the support groups and find comfort in being able to share their
challenges and successes in parenting with others in a similar situation.
Implications and Conclusion
The experience in designing and implementing the grandparents
raising grandchildren in our state has documented how family and consumer
science professionals can take action to assist families and individuals in
improving their lives. Professionals must first be willing to partner with
others and truly collaborate so that the maximum resources and expertise may be
engaged to develop a quality project. Second, they must be willing to invest in
developing sustained relationships that will weather the course of time as the
project starts up and becomes institutionalized. Third, an acceptance of
uncertainty and chaos must be allowed, for without the chaos creativity cannot
be expressed. Finally, family and consumer science professionals can be the
leaders who bring together others to develop a vision for what a project might
be today as well as in the future. Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of being
in the family and consumer sciences profession is the opportunity to work
directly with individuals and families to develop grassroots programs to meet
AARP (2003). Financial assistance for grandparent caregivers.
Retrieved November 11, 2003 from http://aarp.org/confacts/money/tanf.html.
Andrews, F. E., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G.
G. (1995). Leadership: Reflective human
action. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The
ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Coontz, S. (1992). The
way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York:
Fuller-Thomson, E., Minkler, M., & Driver, D. (1997). A
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Kelley, S. J., Whitley, D., Sipe, T.A., & Yorker, B. C.
(2000). Psychological distress in grandmother kinship care providers: The role
of resources, social support, and physical health. Child Abuse and Neglect, 24, 311-321.
Kirby, J. B., & Kaneda, T. (2002). Health insurance and
family structure: The case of adolescents in skipped-generation families. Medical Care Research and Review, 59(2),
Revicki, D. A., & Mitchell, J. P. (1990). Strain, social
support, and mental health in rural elderly individuals. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385-401.
Sands, R. G., & Goldberg-Glen, R. S. (2000). Factors
associated with stress among grandparents raising their grandchildren. Family Relations, 49, 97-105.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2002). Children under 18 living in their
grandparents’ household, by state. Retrieved September 13, 2003 from http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet.BasicFactsServlet.
Weber, J. A., & Waldrop, D. P. (2000). Grandparents
raising grandchildren: Families in transition. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 33(2), 27-45.
This project is funded in part through the Brookdale Foundation of New York,
the Montana Children’s Trust Fund, and Kappa Omicron Nu. I would like to thank
my graduate student and research assistant Annie Conway for her work on this